By MICHAEL FREUND
NEW YORK - It is a warm day out at Citi Field, the new home of the New York Mets, and game time is approaching.
As thousands of hopeful fans make their way through the turnstiles, staring in wonder at the pristine stadium's large and spacious rotunda, announcer Gary Cohen takes his seat up in the diminutive broadcast booth overlooking the playing field.
Like a proficient student of Talmud, he pores over various texts with devotion and intensity, scouring through data on today's match-up, as he prepares to televise what would prove to be yet another frustrating Mets defeat.
There have been a lot of those this season, as any Met fan can tell you. Starting in late June, a year full of promise quickly unraveled as a parade of injuries and miscues sent the Mets hurtling on a downward slide in the standings and straight out of contention in the National League East.
But little of this adversity seems to affect Cohen, whose deep voice and boundless enthusiasm for the game are two of the trademarks that have made him a fixture on the New York sports scene for the past 20 years.
"I never tire of baseball," he tells me in earnest. "Never. When the season is over, I'll watch every post-season game. Every inning," he says.
And, Cohen insists, he still gets a thrill each time he walks into the stadium, "even in bad years, like the Mets are having this season."
After stints calling minor-league games, Cohen joined the Mets lineup on the WFAN radio station in 1989, at the age of 31. It was a dream come true for the self-described "huge sports fan," who had started rooting for the Mets back in 1964, when he was just six years old.
Back in those days, of course, the Mets were the laughing-stock of the major leagues, which they had joined in 1962, setting a dubious modern record for most losses (120) in a season.
Their performances on the field were so atrocious that it once led manager Casey Stengel to mutter in disbelief, "Can't anybody around here play this game?"
Asked why he chose to embrace a team at the bottom of the standings, Cohen is quick to reply, "Well, my father was a Yankee fan and I was a rebel."
In reality, though, there was a deeper reason. The Mets, he says, "seemed like the team of a younger generation. Casey Stengel called them the 'youth of America' and I was nurtured as a Met fan. And when I was 11 years old they miraculously won the World Series in 1969 and I guess that hooked me for life."
His passion for the Mets, as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of their history, was very much on display during the 17 years that he spent broadcasting the franchise's games on radio.
Cohen enjoyed working on the airwaves, and fans took to him as well, so much so that when lead announcer Bob Murphy retired in 2003, the scepter naturally passed on to Cohen.
Just two years later, however, Cohen found himself facing an opportunity he simply could not turn down: making the move over to the tube.
The Mets were starting their own cable channel, SNY (Sportsnet New York), and in late 2005 Cohen was offered the chance to become not just the voice of the team, but its face as well.
"I was very much a committed radio person," he recalls. "I had resisted moving to TV many times but this was the chance to get on the ground floor of a new enterprise, albeit in a familiar setting. It seemed to be the right time to make the move and it has really worked out well," he says.
The jump from radio to television went seamlessly for Cohen, though he did have to make some adjustments, such as, "talking less, getting along with others and, of course, dressing better."
Beyond these differences, Cohen is highly cognizant of what separates the two media. In radio, he notes, "you are the event for the listener. You are their eyes and their ears for the game."
By contrast, in television, "you are just a small piece of a larger operation. People can see the game, and I've got a producer, a director, a cameraman, tape operator and sound people, as well as ex-ballplayers alongside me providing analysis."
The result is that as a television broadcaster, "you are more of a traffic cop and a gate keeper, but I think there is a certain challenge to it in that you have to make your mark with brevity as opposed to with the great eloquence one might employ on the radio."
Cohen's philosophy of broadcasting is surprisingly didactic, almost professorial in approach, which suits someone who graduated with a degree in political science from New York's Columbia University.
"We try to educate fans because I've always felt that the more people watching know about the intricacies of the game, the more they are going to enjoy it," he avers.
"I am very fortunate to work with two wonderful color analysts in Keith Hernandez - who was one of the best players ever to play for the Mets - and former pitcher Ron Darling, who is about as erudite about the art of pitching as anyone I have ever come across, and they are able to explain the intricacies of baseball in a way that I'm not capable of because I never played the game professionally," he says with characteristic modesty.
One of his other defining traits in the eyes of the public has been his unbridled honesty.
Cohen calls them as he sees them, and doesn't hesitate to criticize the team he has cheered on since childhood.
During a recent broadcast, for example, when a Mets pitcher was throwing the ball quite well late into the game, I heard Cohen quip that, "there haven't been too many eighth innings for Mets starters this year," an unmistakable reference to the inadequate performance of the club's pitching staff.
Later in the same game, when a Mets batter went after a bad pitch, Cohen noted that, "We've seen him swing at more unhittable inside pitches."
"The way I see it is that it is our job as broadcasters to tell the truth," he insists. "I recognize that's not always possible because of the constraints that are put on some broadcasters, but we are very fortunate that the Mets and SNY have asked us to be honest and I think that provides a better service to the people watching."
This year especially, as the team's fortunes sagged, Mets fans were hungry for answers.
While Cohen stresses that injuries have played "an enormous role in the Mets downfall this year," he does not think that tells the whole story.
"Even when the Mets had their entire team, there was something a little bit off. They made some unaccustomed mistakes in big spots, whether it was not sliding when they should have or missing a base or failing to cover a base," he says, adding, "and since they lost their front-line players, it kind of exposed the underbelly of the team and the fact that they really didn't have the second-line players they needed to fill those holes."
As Cohen sees it, "this organization has a lot of work to do when this season is over to try and figure out how to rebuild their program for the future."
Cohen is obviously proud of his Jewish identity and makes no attempt to hide it. During a broadcast last year, he discussed his Jewishness on-air with fellow announcer Keith Hernandez, fondly recalling some of the Yiddish that he learned in his youth.
But he is also a very private person and prefers not to delve into his personal life too deeply, beyond saying that he has never visited Israel and that he has not experienced anti-Semitism either on or off the field.
Although no Jews play on the team, Cohen agrees that American Jews have always seemed to have a strong attraction to baseball, which he attributes to the game's distinctive qualities.
"I think that unique among American sports this is very much a thinking man's game," he declares.
"It is a game that you can watch as a casual fan and enjoy, but I think that baseball also works on many different levels and there is a certain cerebral nature to it which appeals to people of some intellectual curiosity, and I think that's probably the connection that you are looking for," he said.
Asked if he saw any similarities between the long-suffering Mets and the Jewish people, Cohen thought for a moment and said, "Mets history has certainly been one of profound failure punctuated by grand achievement."
Then, in a nod to the traditional line, he said with a wry smile, "And Mets fans too have often found themselves hoping, 'Next year in the World Series'."
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